Tender by Belinda McKeon

Tender by Belinda McKeon

Today I have a novel from Irish author Belinda McKeon, her debut offering brought her acclaim and the Faber Prize in 2011.  Tackling the subject of growth, reflections, obsession and change brings us to today’s title, narrated by Michelle Ferguson.


Starting a bit slowly, we are introduced to Catherine, a new student at Trinity College in Dublin. Sheltered, very awkward and insecure, much of the earlier story focuses on her adjustment and rather cringe-worthy interpersonal gaffes. Most notable in this section is her voice: a growing sense of self-awareness, the struggles to ‘get it right’ and the moments that are quintessential to all new university students away from home for the first time.  As the story proceeds, Catherine meets James: and the two are soon inseparable.  Catherine is a bit in awe of James and his bold way of being, a brashness that does seem to hide some inner tumult.  When James lets down his guard and shares some of his own struggles, Catherine’s reaction is dramatic and emotional. Interpersonally, Catherine is still in grade school, and her inability to decipher the lines between friendship, love, companionship and obsession are wholly blurred.

Moving into the next portion of the story, Catherine’s obsession with all things James begins to show in the fracturing of her point of view. From a fairly consistent tale of a young girl hitting all the growing pains, we start to see the lack of grounding in reality, the true fragility of Catherine’s mental state, and her progressive decline of her own capacity to manage her life, her emotions or even her own behaviors.  This story gets dark, and to McKeon’s credit she crafts the dialogue and emotional pitfalls to draw readers in, in effect bringing you back to those moments when everything depended on what you did right then.

Narration is provided by Michelle Ferguson and she managed to capture Catherine in ways that enhanced the story. Initially a touch timid and obviously self-censoring through the growth and confidence gained in the comfort of James’ company, to the manic, abbreviated moments as her control and stability start to fracture. In many small ways the story brings a snapshot of dissolution into mental illness, a checklist of warning signs to note.  Ferguson manages the dialogue and the emotional subtleties without missing a step, or overworking for pathos.

Strikingly, where the story could have ended with Catherine’s dissolution, McKeon shows ambition in trying to fast forward to a point where the characters are, if not completely healthy, able to provide the perspective of time and distance as they look back on life. Resolution between the hopeful beginning and rather traumatic ending is a hard won and mostly successful venture, and the result is a story far more complex and impactful than expected.

Stars:  Overall 4  Narration 4  Story 4


Tender by Belinda McKeon

Title: Tender
Author: Belinda McKeon
Genre: Literary Fiction
Narrator: Michelle Ferguson
Published by: Hachette Audio, Lee Boudreaux Books
ISBN: 031634432X
Published on: 16 February 2016
Source: Hachette Audio
Pages: 416
Audio Length: 12 Hours: 39 minutes
Rated: four-stars
Heat: One FlameOne Flame

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A searing novel about longing, intimacy and obsession from the award-winning author of Solace.

When they meet in Dublin in the late nineties, Catherine and James become close as two friends can be. She is a sheltered college student, he an adventurous, charismatic young artist. In a city brimming with possibilities, he spurs her to take life on with gusto. But as Catherine opens herself to new experiences, James's life becomes a prison; as changed as the new Ireland may be, it is still not a place in which he feels able to truly be himself. Catherine, grateful to James and worried for him, desperately wants to help -- but as time moves on, and as life begins to take the friends in different directions, she discovers that there is a perilously fine line between helping someone and hurting them further. When crisis hits, Catherine finds herself at the mercy of feelings she cannot control, leading her to jeopardize all she holds dear.

By turns exhilarating and devastating, Tender is a dazzling exploration of human relationships, of the lies we tell ourselves and the lies we are taught to tell. It is the story of first love and lost innocence, of discovery and betrayal. A tense high-wire act with keen psychological insights, this daring novel confirms McKeon as a major voice in contemporary fiction, belonging alongside the masterful Edna O'Brien and Anne Enright.

A copy of this title was provided via Hachette Audio for purpose of honest review. I was not compensated for this review: all conclusions are my own responsibility.

About Belinda McKeon

Belinda McKeon's debut novel, Solace, won the 2012 Faber Prize, was voted Irish Book of the Year, and was shortlisted for the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. Her essays and journalism have been published in The Paris Review, the New York Times, the Guardian, and elsewhere. She has had plays produced in Dublin and New York, and is under commission to the Abbey Theatre. McKeon was a nominee for the inaugural Laureate for Irish Fiction post. She lives in Brooklyn and teaches at Rutgers University.